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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

This Little Light of Mine

Rev Rob last Sunday talked about getting lost and finding our way. He said that Quakers, like Unitarians, use the language of the "divine spark" that is in everyone.  It is by that internal light that we find our way when we are lost. Amazing grace!

The light metaphor was used by Plato and picked up by Augustine and then Heidegger for explaining human knowing. The limits of this metaphor were pointed out by Thomists following Aristotle. Neo-Thomist and Kantian Bernard Lonergan especially criticized the "look theory" of knowledge which pretends that everything is just "out there" ready to be found.  Look theory diminishes the creative aspect of knowing by which we craft a model or theory and then verify it through experimentation. When we use language or other symbols to deal with our environment, we are using forms to cut things out of matter and put them into groups.

But acknowledging those limits, the interior light that shines in the darkness to illumine things and especially the way is still a useful metaphor.

Yesterday I read a piece by Howard Gardner on "Reinventing Ethics." I agree with the professor that the old bromides, the moral statutes of past sages, simply don't work anymore. The Ten Commandments and the Analogues don't settle questions of extending life to virtual immortality, using drones against terrorists, planning sustainable cities, and dealing with climate change.  I very much like his solution of gathering the people of professions to consider possible actions, their intended and unintended consequences, what they know and have yet to learn, and the tradeoffs in alternative courses of action. They could reinvent medical ethics, the ethics on uses of biotechnology, limits of technology in defense and foreign affairs, environmental ethics, political ethics, legal ethics, etc. Granting that we can always learn from great ideas of history, Gardner's approach is much better than trying to apply some principles of religion or philosophy that were developed with such a radically different mentality in radically different situations.

However, the philosopher in me won't quite give up.

As I have said often in these meditations, there is a constant principle and guide in all the professionals' discussions and those of us ordinary citizens. It is the "light" of cognitive and moral reason in us all. There is a "humanity" to which we can appeal in our ethical discussions. It is the human way to truth and good, the universal structure of cognitive and moral knowing and doing. Karl Popper, among many others, has articulated the human way of knowing things in the world--reality, truth. John Dewey, among many others, has articulated the human way of doing right or good in the world. Recently neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists have shown how that singular human trait evolved and is administered in the brain.

Whether we are looking at that structure or not, it is operating in all our human actions, including discussing the ethics of our professions or of our everyday world. I think it helps to point this out from time to time; so might I encourage Professor Gardner to include a philosopher in those professional discussions, one who will help them reflect on what they are doing and with what tools so that they see that, despite the diversity of language and outlooks, there is always something which unites us all and makes possible a common space and action--at least for now.

When we all put our little lights together, there is an illumination far greater than that which comes from outside or down from high.  So let them shine.

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